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Since Luke turned twenty-fiveor since the millennium; Julie isn't sure which event actually set him offhe's been talking about not wanting to be stuck in this room any more. He wants to go out, he keeps saying, and dance in the fields.
'I want to be naked,' he adds. 'While I'm dancing.'
'Great,' says Julie. 'You'll be naked and dead and your mother will go totally insane. Nice combination. Very Kurt Cobain.'
'How is that anything like Kurt Cobain? Anyway,I might not die.'
Julie pokes at her Pot Noodle. 'Luke, we've had this conversation a thousand times. Yeah, you might not die, but do you want to take that risk?'
'No. I guess not,' Luke says. 'Is there anything on TV?'
'I wish they'd put more peas in these,' Julie says, and reaches for the remote.
After flicking through various channels, Julie settles on a Learning Zone science programme in which a man with a beard is explaining the birth of calculus. Luke gives Julie a look, then takes the remote control.
'I'll find something with a story,' he says.
There's nothing, really, so he settles for a profile of a pop group, which may as well be a story. They're talking about how they used to have these pathetic low-paid jobs, and play their music in provincial youth-clubs. Now they play Wembley Arena.
Julie looks around the room. There are magazines, CDs and Blockbuster Video boxes on the floor. It is not usually a mess in hereLuke's actually very organisedthese are just the remains of tonight. The rest of the room contains Luke's large double bed, his TV, video, computer, and a couple of chairs. Most of the wall space is covered with the shelves that hold every book Luke's ever read, and his library of videos containing programmes he's taped from the TVprogrammes full of shiny white American malls, clean beaches, best buddies, teen angst, high schools with cheerleaders, soccer pitches, geeks, girls with suntans and blonde highlights, long corridors with lockers and feuds, and perfect stories. He doesn't call them programmes, though. He calls them 'shows', and he calls the pavement the 'sidewalk'. Luke has a slight American accent, although he's never been to America. He believes that Clacton-on-Sea is like the perfect yellow beaches on his tapeswith beautiful people and lifeguardsand that kids hang out at Lakeside the same way they do in American malls.
When he was about fifteen he went through a phase of asking Julie to describe the local beaches, shops and parks. It was obvious that he didn't believe her when she told him about the world outside, and her attempts to be objective soon gave way to simply telling the truth about just how shit everything was. But Luke didn't understand that either, so in the end Julie gave up completely, deciding to just let him believe things in Essex were like TV sets in LA. But when they watched the millennium celebrations on TV, Luke thought it was all fake. It was just as hard to convince him that the displays and the fireworks were real as it was to try to convince him that Beverly Hills 90210 was fantasy and that although his mother has always had a soap-opera kitchen, most people have dirt in their houses, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes in the laundry basket.
Luke's floor is made of linoleum and all his furniture is plastic or MDF. He has nylon sheets and wears clothes made out of artificial fibres. He's sitting on his nylon bed next to Julie with his legs crossed, like some kind of yoga student. Julie is leaning against the wall, her knees drawn up to her chest. She finishes the Pot Noodle and puts the empty plastic container neatly to one side. Her insides feel warm and salty.
There's nothing on TV after the pop profile, so Julie gets up and scans the video shelf. She feels like seeing some American animation: dysfunctional families; dysfunctional robots; dysfunctional, offensive kids.
'I don't want to die,' Luke says. 'But I do want to live.'
Julie laughs. 'Oh please. Will you stop saying that all the time?'
Luke smiles too. 'At least it gets a laugh.'
'And will you stop talking about going out? It makes me feel anxious.'
'Look, I'm not going to do it, of course I'm not. Not now. I just like to think about it. Come on. I've never gone out just because I've talked about it.'
'Yeah,' she says. 'I know.'
Luke smiles. 'I'm not going to do it until it's safeuntil I've been cured.'
At the millennium he swore that he'd be cured by 2001. It's October now. Julie pulls out a video and slides it in the machine.
'I'm worried about you,' Luke says suddenly.
'Me? Where did that come from? We were talking about you.'
He looks at the Pot Noodle. 'Have you eaten anything real today?'
Luke Gale was born on 24 October 1975, during an episode of Fawlty Towers. In the year the Netherlands won the Eurovision Song Contest, the year of Wombles, Pong, Ford Capris and the Bay City Rollers, Luke was a miracle child.
His mother Jean had, apparently, always been unable to conceive, and the adoption agency she and her husband Bill approached had ruled that Bill was away too much for them to effectively parent a child. It didn't matter that half the women in the area were single-parent families with ten different men on the scene; Jean and Bill just weren't good enough for a child. Bill was away so much because his firm, a big insurance company, sent him to different locations for one, two or sometimes three weeks at a time. In the end, the savings fund that was supposed to provide private education for the adopted child they never had ended up going towards Brazilian herbal fertility treatments for Jean. A couple of years later, Luke was born.
The first time Julie saw Luke was some time in 1985. She was sitting in the removal van, half asleep. He was a face in a window that she at first thought belonged to a ghost. It was latethey'd been driving all dayand in the moonlight he'd looked pale, drawn and a bit deathly. Julie was ten at the time, and was going through a phase of thinking everything was a ghost and everything looked deathly, but there was something wrong about him even then. He wasn't looking at anything. He was just looking. As they pulled up outside their new home, she realised that he was going to be her new neighbour.
'I never thought I'd live in a cul-de-sac,' laughed Julie's mother.
'What's a cul-de-sac?' Julie asked.
'Like this,' explained her father. 'A road with a beginning but no end.'
The next day, after a night spent 'camping' in their new home, Julie's father started his first day in his new job as a lecturer at the local sixth-form college, preparing for the new term when he'd be teaching art. At about three o'clock, after spending the day unpacking, Julie and her mother went to say hello to the neighbours at number 17.
At first, Julie couldn't work out what was so weird about Luke. He didn't seem like a ghost any more; he seemed more like a child you'd see on TV or somethingshe wasn't sure why. When she thought about it a lot later, Julie realised it was because he had no scabs, no suntan, no insect bites and no dirt. He was the cleanest child she'd ever seen. They just stood looking at each other in silence, in what Julie later found out was the 'guest' lounge, in which she was never allowed again after that first day.
In the lounge, the funny-looking plastic blinds were drawn over the patio doors, although Julie didn't think this was particularly strange. For a few minutes, while Julie and Luke stared at each other, the mothers made small talk about the area, and Julie's mother, Helen, commented on Jean's display case and collection of glass-blown animals.
'I'll go and make a cup of tea, shall I?' offered Jean eventually. 'Thanks,' said Julie's mum, smiling nervously as her daughter pushed her feet around the immaculate white shag-pile carpet, making little, meaningless patterns. 'Why don't you kids go and play outside?' she suggested.
There was a funny silence, and then Luke sort of sneered. 'Yeah, why not?' he said sarcastically. Then he left the room.
Julie couldn't believe that a child had been so rude to a grown-up. She was almost envious of the tone he'd taken with her mother; he'd sounded almost like a grown-up himself. Her mother looked at the floor and then fiddled with her earrings, the way she always did when she was nervous. She was wearing her clip-on dog earrings today, the ones she had bought on holiday in Cornwall last year. Julie suddenly felt cross with Luke for speaking to her mother that way and guilty that a few moments ago she'd thought it was clever. Stupid little boy, she thought, and wondered if he was a problem child like the ones on the estate in Bristol, near where she used to live.
'Why don't we go into the kitchen?' suggested Jean.
Julie and her mother followed Jean through the door and down the hall.
'Sorry,' said Julie's mother, who always apologised for everything. 'I hope I didn't say anything. . .'
Jean filled the kettle and put it on to boil in silence. Julie could sense a weird atmosphere in the room but tried not to think about it. Instead she wondered whether this was the sort of kitchen where you'd find Nesquik and Marmite, neither of which her mother bought, and both of which she'd always relied on getting at friends' houses. She'd already noted that there was no Soda Stream, which she was pleased about. Luke was too horrible to deserve one.
It was clear that Julie's mum was feeling uncomfortable.
'Can I help with anything?' she asked Jean.
'No, no,' said Jean,pouring water into the teapot. 'That's all right.'
'Maybe we should leave you to it. Get on with the unpacking. . .'
'I'm sorry,' said Jean. 'I'm sorry for the way Luke spoke to you.'
'I'm sure it's a just a phase,' Julie's mother said nicely. 'You should hear this one sometimes.' She pointed at Julie. This was something that really got on Julie's nerves. Whenever another child acted badly, her mother pretended Julie did too, to make the person feel better. This was unfair, because Julie hardly ever got into trouble.
'Luke hasn't been outside since 1976,' Jean said. 'He isn't usually so rude. I am sorry. He's having another assessment soon.'
Julie's mother seemed shocked. 'Assessment?' she repeated.
Julie wondered if Luke was a mad person.
'Yes. He's allergic to the sun,' explained Jean.
For the next half an hour, while the grown-ups carried on talking, Julie considered this. What did being allergic to the sun involve? She was allergic to wasp stings and swelled up whenever she was stung. Last time she was stung, she had to go to hospital for an injection in her bottom. She imagined Luke swelling in the sunshine, eventually exploding in a ball of yellow pus. She was aware of her mother making the sympathetic noises she always made when other adults told her their problems, which were usually something to do with an illness or 'trouble at home'. This time there were a lot of medical terms Julie didn't understandapparently Luke was suffering from something called XP and various other allergies. Julie couldn't follow what the grown-ups were talking about and eventually started picking an old scab on her finger.
'He just watches TV in his room all the time,' said Jean. She looked at Julie and then back to Julie's mother. 'We got it for his birthday last year. Since then all he does is watch it, and we don't know what to do. He doesn't even read books any moreand he used to get through so many books.' She sniffed. 'It'll be nice for him to have someone of his own age to play with. Get him away from that box, anyway.' She's been crying a bit, and apologising a lot, like Julie's mum does sometimes.
'Has he got a TV in his room?' asked Julie. She had never heard of anything more glamorous in her life. No one she knew had TVs in their bedrooms, not even moneybags Joanna who'd had a bouncy castle on her birthday.
'Julie,' said her mother, embarrassed.
'What?' she said indignantly. 'I was only asking.'
Her mother gave her a look, and soon, after some fidgeting, sighing and more scab picking, Julie was taken home.
'That poor little boy,' Julie's mother said to Julie's father later that night,over dinner.
They were eating fish and chips in the half-unpacked sitting room. Julie's father had just been talking about his preparations at the college, and Julie's mother had been talking about all the reading she still had to do before her degree course started at the polytechnic. Now they were talking about that weirdo Luke. Julie was curled up on the brown sofa reading Smash Hits and pretending not to listen.
'What did you say he had again?' asked her father.
'XP,' said Julie's mother uncertainly. 'I can't remember what it stood for.'
'XP. Hmm. Never heard of it.'
'It's very rare, apparently.'
Julie's father flicked the TV on to BBC2. Julie held her breath. The Young Ones was about to start and if she held her breath there was a chance she wouldn't be noticed and would be able to watch it all before being told to clean her teeth for bed.
'She is a seriously odd woman,' commented Julie's mother. 'Crystal brandy glasses and a guest lounge,' she muttered to her husband and they both giggled before turning their whole attention to the TV. Just before bed-time, Julie overheard her father say something to her mother she didn't understand. It was about there probably being a lot of wife-swapping parties around here. It made them both laugh a lot, but it sounded very dubious to Julie. Who would want to swap their wife? She thought about the fat woman next door with her podgy fingers and gold rings and wondered if her husband might want to swap her. He probably would. That's probably what they meant. Smiling, having finally got the joke, she put on her My Little Pony nightie and went to sleep listening to her parents having sex.
Julie's school was a ten-minute walk from her new house. Compared to her last school journey, this was seen as too far for her to go on her own. Especially with Stranger Danger, and the industrial estate and the big fields that seemed to be the best shortcut to the school. The fields near the new house were yellow with tall grass and you got there by going down an overgrown alley next to a tyre factory. Julie enjoyed playing there. She found she could hide herself in the tall soft grass and make a little womb-like den where no one could find her. Then she overheard her mother telling her father that she was sure some kid would be found dead in those fields at some point. The next time Julie went there she lay in the yellow grass, perfectly hidden and still, and imagined being cold, pale and dead. Suddenly she didn't want to go there again.